Northwest Watercolor Society at the Seattle Art Museum: Annual Exhibition Publications, 1942-1976


This collection consists of the catalogues (or checklists) from the Northwest Watercolor Society annual exhibitions hosted by the Seattle Art Museum. This collection spans the years 1942 to 1976, covering the 2nd through 36th annual exhibition. Please direct questions on catalogues after and including the year 1977 (37th annual exhibition) to the Northwest Watercolor Society.

Catalogues may include: artist name, hometown, title of work, and sale price; jury names; cash award winners and honorable mentions; and/or sponsors.


Historically, watercolor was seen as a feminine medium due to the medium’s fragile state and limited size. In the turn to the twentieth century, Seattle had no formal museums or art institution, and as David F. Martin points out, not only did the promotion of the arts fall to women’s social clubs but art coverage was found exclusively in a newspaper’s society pages.1   

The Northwest Watercolor Society (NWWS) began in 1939 as an idea Vara Grub shared with Dorothy Rising and Florence Nesbit. Their goal was to celebrate and inspire interest in water-based painting, which ultimately included all water media: watercolor, acrylic, gouache, and egg tempera. For many years the society accepted submissions exclusively by painters local to Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, and soon included Alaska and British Columbia. The group was formalized in 1940 through by-laws, its first president, Vara Grub, and a SAM hosted exhibition of local painters held during National Art Week.  NWWS is one the earliest and most successful arts organizations in Washington state.


Installation view of the 27th Annual Exhibition of the NWWS exhibition installation (1967).


When SAM first opened in 1933, there was an exhibition of Seattle painters, which included Florence Harrison Nesbit--the future co-founder of NWWS--who won first prize in watercolor.  SAM continued to exhibit watercolors, and when hosting Art Week from November 25 - December 1, 1940, included works of the NWWS alongside those of the Women Painters of Washington, the Puget Sound Group of Northwest Artists, the Craftsman Guild of Washington, the Northwest Printmakers Society, the Seattle Photographic Society, and the Group of Twelve.  

While no catalogue was produced for this exhibition, it is believed the exhibit included Margaret Tomkins, James H. Fitzgerald, Walter Isaacs, Eustace Ziegler, as well as NWWS charter members: Vara Grube, Paul Immel, Alf Dunn, James Huston, Dorothy Rising, Dale Goss, Florence Harrison Nesbit, and Z. Vanessa Helder, among others.2 SAM continued to support watercolors, hosting lectures or hosting shows of prominient watercolorists alongside the NWWS annual exhibitions.

SAM displayed the NWWS annual exhibition on-site from 1940 to 1963. In 1964, the event moved to the newly acquired SAM Pavilion at the Seattle Center until 1976. During this time, the annual exhibit was jointly sponsored by SAM, and many museum members served on the awards jury. NWWS exhibited at SAM for 33 years, until Dr. Richard Fuller retired and SAM decided to switch their focus from all juried exhibitions to in-depth shows of selected local artists.

A fuller history of the organization and its members was published in 2015 by Seattle art historian, David F. Martin, entitled, A Fluid Transition: Northwest Watercolor Society...the First 75 Years.


While watercolor as a medium has existed and been used by artists for thousands of years, it was never treated as a bona fide artistic medium until the late seventeenth century.  This change was due, in part, to an aesthetic turn towards natural landscape and the picturesque.3  Martin notes  “...Northwest artists have shown a preference for watercolor and water-based mediums.  The overlapping of transparent washes conveyed a sense of the layered and cloud atmospheric effects that permeate the local climate” .4

Through the years, the Seattle Times has characterized the NWWS exhibitions as excellent displays of works reflecting the mood and emotion of the Pacific Northwest.  Carol Lund's 1948 article commented on the "homeyness" of the titles found in the NWWS exhibitions: Ferry Boat Cafe, Second and Jackson on a Sunday Morning, Clam Tide, and Rainy Day.5 Inversely, the Seattle Times has also reported comments similar to juror Andrews Hofmeister, that “Water color needn’t be confined to recording the vagaries of the climate.” 6


Since 1977, NWWS has worked and/or exhibited with Bellevue Art Museum, Howard/Mandville Gallery, the Art Institute of Seattle, the Frye Art Museum, and the Washington State Convention Center. Today, the NWWS displays their permanent collection at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center and hosts exhibitions for associate members at local galleries.

In addition to the annual exhibition, the NWWS began exhibiting at Studio Gallery in 1944. In 1947, they held a separate annual membership exhibitions at local Seattle sites. Additioanlly, NWWS curated traveling shows including a national exhibition at the Riverside Museum in New York.  For additional information on these shows please contact the Northwest Watercolor Society.

1 David F. Martin. A Fluid Transition: Northwest Watercolor Society...The First 75 Years (Bellevue: Northwest Watercolor Society, 2015), 9.

Ibid., 18-24.

3 Albert Ten Eyck Gardener. History of Water Color Painting in America (NY, New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation, 1966), 7.

4 Martin. A Fluid Transition: Northwest Watercolor Society...The First 75 Years9.

5 Carol Lund, Seattle Times (Seattle, WA), May 27, 1948.

6 Anne G. Todd, “Alden Mason is Juror for 2 Shows in 2 Days,” Seattle Times (Seattle, WA), March 11 1962.

Northwest Watercolor Society at the Seattle Art Museum: Annual Exhibition Publications, 1942-1976